A cathedral made of salt?


Nice helmet mate: In the salt cathedral in Zipaquirá

Unless I’m sleeping in it, I’m really not a big fan of the dark.

And unless I’m hiding from a mass murderer I’m really not too fussed about confined spaces either.

So being told that I have to crawl 20 metres along a mine shaft in the pitch black, lacks a certain appeal.

Still, if the 85-year-old Colombian in front of me is managing to feel his way along the wet rock edge, I have no excuse.

After five minutes of heart palpatations and swearing under my breath the area thankfully widens and our guide, who has previously insisted we turn off our helmet lamps so as ‘not to frighten the bats’ roars with laughter.

“You didn’t need to do that, I just wanted to scare you,” she says.

“Hilarious,” I mutter.


Got any chips to go with this?: Sophie licks the salty cave wall

Switches click in unison and the combined beams of light reveal a beautiful, if somewhat eerie scene. All around me is salt.

Thousands and thousands of tonnes of the stuff which, in its natural form, seemingly has a slight dirty grey hue.

Sophie, me, the 85-year-old and the few other sufferers-of-unnecessary-temporary-blindness are nearly 200 metres below the surface, getting a taste of what life is like as a salt miner.

Other parts of this strange salty underworld, in the Zipa mountain in the town of Zipaquirá, 2,652 metres above sea level and an hour from Bogotá, are still worked at night by miners.

They smash modern day machinery into seams of rock, just metres away from deposits that have been exploited since the 5th century BC.

Traditionally miners prayed for their safe return in a small sanctuary near the surface before descending into the dark for their day’s work.


Diggin’ it: Sophie attacks the salt deposits

In 1932 a church was chiselled out of the salt and in 1954 a grander project to create an underground cathedral was completed.

However by 1990 structural problems and safety concerns meant the cathedral had to be closed down.

That would have been that had a blend of architects, engineers, members of the clergy and sculptors not embarked on a mission to create a new, even more spectacular, cathedral in 1991, 200 feet below the original place of worship.


The new underground cathedral

It took four years to carve out its various corridors and sanctuaries, achieved by making significant additions to caves left behind by previous mining operations.

What was created is now a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, the most visited tourist attraction in the country and officially the number one wonder of Colombia.

Out of the jagged walls, small chapels have been created to represent the 14 Stations of the Cross – telling the story of Jesus’ final journey up the mound to his death.

Inside each station there is a large cross and kneeling platforms chiselled into the rock. Colourful lights illuminate the scenes.

We wander deeper into the cave. “Mmm, salty,” I remark to Sophie after licking a small section of the one million cubic metres of salt deposits estimated to be here.


Sophie beneath the enormous blue salty dome

Further on we reach a large dome illuminated by blue lights, it feels like we are under the ocean. We arrive at three staircases that descend deeper down into the rock and our guide tells us to pick one of them – left, middle or right.

Sophie and I opt for the right-hand side and upon reaching the bottom stair we are surprisingly informed that that means we are “free of sins.” If we’d gone for the middle one we would have been quite sinful, while the left one would have meant we were overflowing with wickedness.


The ethereal blue white nave

At the end we reach three naves representing Jesus’ birth and baptism, his life and death and, finally, his resurrection. Each one with an altar made of salt.

The cathedral is also full of beautiful marble sculptures, notably the Guardian Angel carved in 1950 by Italian sculptor Ludovico Consorte.

We are told that around 3,000 people still partake in weekly Sunday morning services, but after several hours in this wondrous creation we step out of the darkness and into the light.

It may have been in a holy place, but it feels much safer above ground. I fully appreciate the ability to see and to stand upright and have a new respect for miners.


About travellingtoothbrushes

We are a couple of journalists with restless toothbrushes. Our teeth scrubbers seem unable to leap out of their respective washbags to take up a permanent residency on the bathroom shelf. So, we've decided to let them live the way they want to and take them on a trip around South America...
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One Response to A cathedral made of salt?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Wow! agreat description of an incredible place. Keep; travelling and writing!

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